The Common Good

Blog Posts By Phil Haslanger

Posted by Phil Haslanger 4 weeks 2 days ago
The empty shoes came in all shapes and sizes — cowboy boots and sneakers, children’s sparkly shoes and women’s dress shoes. They filled step after step going up toward the entrance of the Wisconsin State Capitol. The shoes — 467 pair of them — represented the death toll from guns in just one state: Wisconsin.  "I want you to look at these empty shoes," Jeri Bonavia, told the crowd gathered on the Capitol steps on Monday. "I want you to bear witness. All across our state, families are aching with emptiness." Bonavia is the executive director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, which is using this display of empty shoes in five cities around the state this week. In the nationwide scheme of things, Wisconsin has a lower death rate from guns than the nation as a whole. The annual average of 467 from murder, suicide and accidents is just a fraction of the approximately 30,000 gun deaths each year across the U.S.  And yet the row upon row of empty shoes on the steps spoke to the heartache that comes with each death, whatever the toll in whatever state.  
Posted by Phil Haslanger 17 weeks 2 days ago
I thought at first that it was a fictional scene, conflating in one example some of the problems those of us in Christianity face when confronted with issues of domestic violence. The scene was set up as a call to rethink how we articulate our theology in areas like sacrifice and forgiveness and commitment and gender roles.Here’s what I wrote in The Capital Times in Madison, Wis., that was posted on Sunday:“A woman has been suffering physical abuse at the hands of her husband. She finally summons up the courage to talk to her pastor about it.“His advice: First, you need to recognize that your suffering is like Jesus’ suffering. Next, you need to forgive like Jesus forgave. Then remember that you made a commitment to marry this man for life. He is the head of your family, so you need to make sure you are doing what he wants so as not to trigger his anger.“And then an offer: Let me meet with the two of you and help you patch up your marriage.”I described it as a fictional scenario. And then I heard this from a friend: “that was the response from my minster regarding my first husband 30 years ago ...”I’d like to think that many pastors these days are a least a bit wiser both theologically and practically in how they deal with someone facing domestic violence. That’s reflected in a groundbreaking survey released last week by Sojourners at The Summit: World Change Through Faith & Justice.
Posted by Phil Haslanger 19 weeks 2 days ago
I’ve recently been thinking a lot about failure.Not my failures, though I suspect we could come up with a few.No, I’ve thinking about Scott Walker’s failed governorship in Wisconsin.And Barack Obama’s failed presidency in the nation.And our failed foreign policy.And the failed Affordable Care Act.And Walker’s failed jobs policy for the Badger State. And so on.Then I started thinking about the failure of our political dialogue these days.
Posted by Phil Haslanger 25 weeks 1 day ago
The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on Tuesday has refocused the nation on the inherent contradictions in the death penalty. But here in Wisconsin last week, an opera helped focus the attention of one community on the many human issues woven into the debate over crime and punishment.In real life at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, a mix of lethal drugs injected into the body of Lockett caused seizures rather than immediate death. On stage in the opera version of Dead Man Walking, the drug machine clicks, hums, and whirrs with efficiency, leaving the fictional character Joe DerRocher dead on the stage.Dead Man Walking — the book by Sr. Helen Prejean about her work with prisoners on death row and the families of their victims — became an award-winning movie in the mid-1990s starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. It was recreated as an opera in 2000 and since then has played in 40 cities.What happened in Madison, Wis., last week was more than the presentation of an opera. It was the culmination of six weeks of some 20 events engaging about 1,500 community members in discussion of many facets of the criminal justice system. The two performances of the opera itself drew about 3,000 people. It was a classic example of art engaging life.Capital punishment itself is not so much of an issue in Wisconsin – the state has banned it since 1853. But Wisconsin does have the highest rate of black male incarceration in the nation. Its prison system tilts far more toward punishment than toward treatment and rehabilitation. It imprisons twice as many people as its neighboring and demographically similar state of Minnesota.
Posted by Phil Haslanger 32 weeks 6 days ago
For most folks, these names will not mean much: Eric Pizer, Christopher Barber, and Andrew Harris.They are names that may have a bit resonance in Wisconsin, where I am from. What they represent, though, are the struggles we face as a society dealing with concepts of repentance and redemption. They represent the way those concepts get overrun by politicians seeking to exploit the public’s fears. We as a people, after all, do not seem to be in a very forgiving mood these days.So the distinctive stories of these three Wisconsin residents might offer a good starting point for Christians thinking about what our faith tradition calls us to during this season of Lent.
Posted by Phil Haslanger 1 year 6 days ago
I had a chance to play the role of Bad Pastor Phil last week.The occasion was a conference at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, Wis. called “Your Congregation: A Port in the Storm for a Victim of Domestic Violence.” Bad Pastor Phil did not provide a very good port in the storm.The group of people from some 25 parishes and congregations in the greater Madison area had just witnessed a squirm-inducing scene where Sam came home from work the day after he had hit his wife, Mary. She had prepared his favorite meal, hoping she could make him happy.Nothing could make Sam happy, of course, other than feeling that he was totally in control of Mary. So he demeaned her, ordered her around, threw the drink of imaginary Scotch and water she had prepared for him across the room, and finally stomped out of the house.Sam was played by Darald Hanusa of the Midwest Domestic Violence Resource Center, a social work therapist with three decades of experience treating men who batter women. Mary was played by Terry Hoffman, who earlier in the day told a gripping story of the real-life abuse she experienced at the hands of her now former husband.So now Sam and Mary were on their way to see their pastor. We have a problem communicating, they told me. Sam said it was all Mary’s fault. Mary tried to explain that she was trying to do the best she could, but I asked her what she was doing that was pushing Sam’s anger buttons. She tried to reply, but I kept turning the conversation back to Sam.I reminded Mary that in the New Testament of the Bible, there were two letters from Paul that said a wife should be submissive to her husband. I ignored the fear that was all over her face.I was acting out the role that all too often churches have played in real life. Perhaps they are not as crude as I portrayed it, but getting faith-based communities to focus on domestic violence is a growing theme these days.
Posted by Phil Haslanger 1 year 6 weeks ago
There’s a catch phrase that comes to the fore when people start looking for religious reasons not to enter a war like the one now raging in Syria: “Who would Jesus bomb?”Jesus would not have bombed anyone, of course. Bombs were not weapons of choice in his day. But the cruelty of war was no stranger to his era. The Romans could be every bit as cruel as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. They executed dissidents like Jesus himself with ease. They leveled the city of Jerusalem. But if it is hard to imagine Jesus targeting a cruise missile aimed at another nation, it is not hard to imaging him encouraging his followers to stand with those who are most vulnerable, to seek ways to defend others from cruelty, to come to the aid of those refugees displaced by war. The question is how best to do that.
Posted by Phil Haslanger 1 year 11 weeks ago
I was in my office on a quiet afternoon when I saw the car pull into the parking lot.Those of us who work in churches are familiar with people stopping by seeking a bit of financial help. But people stop by churches for lots of reasons. It’s best to wait to see what they want before making assumptions.As I watched the African-American gentlemen get out of his car, I sighed. My peaceful afternoon was going to be interrupted by yet another request for help. We could do that, but it would take some time. He came into the church and I greeted him.“Hi, how are you?”“Fine,” he said. “But I think I’m lost. I’ve got this appointment at a business near here, but I think I missed a turn. Can you help me figure out where it is?”So why did I assume he was looking for a handout? The only variable was the color of his skin. And in that moment, I realized how quickly I make judgments about people based on stereotypes that lurk within me. And I was grateful that I had kept that stereotype to myself when I greeted the man.
Posted by Phil Haslanger 1 year 20 weeks ago
My friend Mike died last week.We were the same age. We grew up together in Marinette in northeast Wisconsin. Worked our way through Boy Scouts together. Played at each other’s houses. Studied in the same classrooms. And then, over time, we drifted apart. Until this past year. That’s when I learned that Mike was dying of cancer.In less than 12 months, we re-established a friendship and Mike and his wife, Nancy, taught me amazing lessons about living with the prospect of dying.In our initial contacts, Nancy wrote of Mike: “He is doing well with his treatments. I am amazed, each day, how well he handles this journey we are on. Never once have we asked ‘why us?’ We feel so blessed that we have each day to love each other and enjoy our retirement one day at a time. Not everyone is so lucky to have a long goodbye with the one they love.“
Posted by Phil Haslanger 1 year 25 weeks ago
Editor's Note: The following is the text of an invocation being given at the May Day Rally in Madison, Wis.When we gather at a place like our State Capitol, there are people here from all sorts of religious and non-religious backgrounds.There are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, Hindus and and Bahai, Humanists and people who are pretty sure they believe something, but don’t know exactly how the heck to describe it.What connects us all this day is a spirit of hospitality, a spirit of compassion and a spirit of justice.At their worst, religious and other beliefs can isolate us in little camps where we see outsiders as threats. At their best, they call us to hospitality, not only to those we know, but to the strangers in our midst – those who come from other places, speak other languages, seek a new life. At their best, they call us to embrace those who seek to be part of our community.
Posted by Phil Haslanger 1 year 26 weeks ago
Last week was on in which what God envisions for our world seemed so very, very far away.We watched in horror last Monday as two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. We wept as we heard about the death of an 8-year-old boy, a 23-year-old grad student, a 29-year-old restaurant manager. We shuddered as we thought about the 170 people injured in the bombings, many of them losing feet or legs. We asked why. Why did this happen? How could human beings do this to others?Tuesday, we learned about poisoned letters being sent to elected officials. Real poison, not just the poisonous words that are so much of our political dialogue. Is this really what God envisioned for us? 
Posted by Phil Haslanger 1 year 29 weeks ago
A caller into a Christian radio station was telling the hosts about some of the strains in her marriage. Soon, she was talking about the physical abuse she was receiving from her husband.And the response of the hosts of this Christian radio show? “What are you doing that is making him so mad?”There’s a sad history in too many Christian churches of pastors telling abused wives that their duty is, as one author noted, “to trust that God would honor her action by either stopping the abuse or giving her the strength to endure it.”I don’t think that view is as common in churches as it once was. And in many churches pastors and other faith leaders will act thoughtfully and quickly to come to the aid of a victim of abuse. But the undercurrent of tolerating abuse lingers.A renowned theology professor from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Bruce Ware, preached a few years ago that when women refuse to submit to their husbands, men will sometimes respond with abuse. He did not condone that, but he seemed to accept it as inevitable.
Posted by Phil Haslanger 1 year 35 weeks ago
The drone operators sit at consoles on military bases around the U.S. They track their targets and when the moment is right, they send the command to fire. And then people die.Drones have been in the news a lot over the past month as Congress has considered the nomination of John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Brennan has been the chief architect of the drone policies of the Obama administration.The constitutional questions have gotten quite a public airing, but drones raise deeper moral questions about what constraints there are on weapons of war.Yes, drones are efficient, effective, and economical. But what do they do to the soul of this nation, to the psyches of those who push the buttons from half a world away? If they are moral for the U.S. to use at will in any nation of the world, are they moral for other nations to use against us?
Posted by Phil Haslanger 1 year 38 weeks ago
So you might think that religious folks for the most part are not big fans of guns, and for the most part you’d be right.And then you run across these comments from a California legislator, who said guns are “essential to living the way God intended.” That was Rep. Tim Donnelly, who told a Christian radio show Jan. 16 that guns “are used to defend human life. They are used to defend our property and our families and our faith and our freedom.”Well, yes, guns are used that way. They are used in lots of other ways too — to kill people we don’t like, to hold up banks, to commit suicide. It’s harder to wrap those under the banner of God’s intent.For Christians, it’s hard to square the deification of guns with Jesus telling his followers to put away their swords, even as he was being arrested and led off to death.That’s why a wide coalition of religious voices are speaking out in the great national debate about how we can live up to the Second Amendment’s call for having a “well-regulated militia.” Notice the words “well-regulated.”As the Very Rev. Gary Hall, the new dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., said two days after the horrific shootings at Newtown: “I believe the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby.”
Posted by Phil Haslanger 1 year 51 weeks ago
As the winds and the rain of Hurricane Sandy settle down, one bit of the aftermath is going to be another round of conversation about how climate change is affecting our world.It’s not a conversation you have heard much of in the presidential campaign this year. Climate change is one of a quartet of issues that will have a huge impact on the future of this nation that have gotten short shrift by both President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney.Poverty. Guns. . Drones. Climate change.Bring up any of those issues and watch the candidates make a quick nod of concern and then scamper away from any specifics. Yet those issues will be with us long after Nov. 6, so it is incumbent on those of us in the faith community to be laying the groundwork now for how we will address them in the coming year.That work has already begun, of course. The challenge is not to let the post-election exhaustion sweep away those concerns like they were potted palms on a pier in the midst of the hurricane.
Posted by Phil Haslanger 2 years 1 week ago
On a conference call with people from across the nation who held screenings of The Line, you could hear frustrations mounting from people struggling with the challenge of reducing poverty in America.How do you engage people in rural areas, asked one woman. Why were Native Americans left out, asked a man from Minnesota. A priest who has worked on housing the homeless for a lifetime expressed the exasperation of someone who has devoted much time and seen little progress.The battle against poverty is a long slog. That’s why it was good to hear some of the comments of folks gathered last week at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wis. (just outside Madison) after the opening night showing of The Line.
Posted by Phil Haslanger 2 years 1 week ago
OK, church folks. Fasten your seat belts. But don’t hunker down.There’s a new study out this week that shows that one-in-five Americans has no religious affiliation. Not Baptist, not Catholic, not Lutheran, not Jewish, not Muslim. For those of us in the world of organized religion, this just adds more data to a trend we have seen accelerating over the last decade.In 2007, about 15 percent of the adult population in the U.S. described itself as unaffiliated with any religion. In a comparable survey done this summer and released on Tuesday by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, the number hit 20 percent.  And if you just focus on those under 30, the religiously unaffiliated constitute one third of that group.Among those of us who are professional religious types, this is the kind of data that can prompt a lot of gloomy introspection about relevance and a lot of finger pointing at those who are not interested in the same kinds of religious expression that we are. Let me suggest there’s a less gloomy and less judgmental way to think about this data.
Posted by Phil Haslanger 2 years 11 weeks ago
First, there were the cryptic news bulletins on TV. There had been a shooting at a Sikh temple in a Milwaukee suburb called Oak Creek. Then the details began to emerge. Six people were dead, others critically wounded, including a police officer. The shooter, who had a long history with the white power movement, was shot dead by another police officer, bringing the toll to seven.And all around Wisconsin, people watched in horror as we learned of yet another mass murder, this one in our backyard, this one shattering the tranquility of a Sunday morning worship service.There are not a lot of Sikhs in Wisconsin – about 3,000 in the southeastern part of the state, perhaps 250 or so in the Madison area where I live. Yet people everywhere shared the horror and the sadness of that moment.In the Milwaukee area, a group called the Light Brigade — which had held up illuminated letters with political slogans during the effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker earlier this year — stood in Cathedral Square with a simple, powerful message in lights: “Wisconsin Weeps.”
Posted by Phil Haslanger 2 years 17 weeks ago
When the Nuns on the Bus pulled up in front of Rep. Paul Ryan’s home office in Janesville, Wis., earlier this week, they were challenging the theological rationale he has been using for his budget plan that has become the economic banner for the Republican Party.But they were also showing how people can hold strong opinions, get those opinions into the public arena and still engage adversaries in respectful ways. In the process, they called on citizens to get engaged in the same way.“I urge you, urge you, I beg you, Janesville, in this election cycle, please, don’t be a spectator,” Sr. Simone Campbell pleaded with a crowd in the courthouse park as their visit to the southern Wisconsin city came to an end.
Posted by Phil Haslanger 2 years 22 weeks ago
The crowd in an Atlanta church on Wednesday night was mostly Protestants, mostly preachers.
The speaker was a professor of preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City – one of the icons of the mainstream Protestant world.Yet Barbara Lundblad’s message was a call for the 1,000 or so people gathered for the annual Festival of Homiletics to “stand with these courageous Roman Catholic sisters.”

She was referring, of course, to the recent crackdown by the Vatican on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the organization that represents about 80 percent of the nuns in the U.S.Lundblad drew on the famous story of Mary, having just learned she was pregnant with Jesus, visiting her cousin, Elizabeth, who was also improbably pregnant.The Gospel of Luke says that Mary “entered the house of Zechariah and visited Elizabeth.” Lundblad pondered why Luke felt it necessary to put Zechariah in the story at this point. She let that hang unanswered.Then she noted that when Elizabeth saw Mary, the baby leapt in her womb in recognition of Jesus – a sign that women often come to theology through the experiences of their bodies. 
Lundblad said wryly, “Surely Elizabeth would not have been allowed to testify before the Congressional committee on contraception” – an all-male committee with all male witnesses, all representing church groups that do not allow the ordination of women.
Posted by Phil Haslanger 2 years 36 weeks ago
Now we are at Valentine’s Day a year later. For many months last spring, a solitary red heart balloon floated just under the dome of the Capitol. It became a gentle symbol of this powerful people’s uprising.The red heart balloon can serve as a reminder of how God’s Spirit blows whichever way it will, but that God’s Spirit is a spirit of justice and of compassion. As Bishop Burnside said, voices of faith need both a vocabulary of love and a vocabulary of justice as we move into the highly-charged months ahead.
Posted by Phil Haslanger 2 years 40 weeks ago
It was not exactly like the occupations of Wall Street or Boston, of Oakland or Seattle.Rod House’s “wee encampment” was a one-man occupation on the library grounds in LaVeta, Colorado, population 906, some 65 miles southwest of Pueblo. He was so horrified by what he saw happening to protesters in other cities he was at wit’s end.“I’ve got to do something, but I’m 71 years old,” House said.So on Black Friday, that day that represents consumer society on steroids, House, an Air Force veteran, pitched his tent on the library grounds, determined to make his own stand for a better world. He was there simply as individual standing against the power of money that has corrupted politics.
Posted by Phil Haslanger 3 years 15 weeks ago
The email came just a few days before two Jewish rabbis and two Muslim friends joined two of us Christian ministers for a Sunday morning service. This service was part of a national event called Faith Shared.
Posted by Phil Haslanger 3 years 19 weeks ago
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Posted by Phil Haslanger 5 years 6 weeks ago